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Leaving no one behind with Fixed Wireless Access

Connectivity is a vital part of digital inclusion, but with less than 60 percent of the world’s population able to access the Internet as of June 2019, there’s still some way to go. Here's how FWA can bridge the gap.

By Gary Maidment
Jan 2020

Connectivity is a basic premise of digital inclusion and the springboard for powering access to the many socioeconomic benefits of digital technology. But with less than 60 percent of the world’s population covered by Internet access as of June 2019, there’s still some way to go. 

For individuals and communities that lack online access, the impact on quality of life is high in almost every domain. And it’s increasing. For example, it’s harder to apply for jobs, access healthcare, seek financial aid, engage in self-learning, or access government services without an Internet connection. On a community level, it creates a poverty trap that restricts local economic growth. 

Realizing “Broadband for All” is a challenge that Huawei and its partners are working hard to overcome, especially in scenarios where laying fiber cable isn’t viable or cost-effective. However, powered by 4G and 5G, WTTx in the shape of Huawei’s Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) technologies is overcoming many of the legacy connectivity challenges.

Connecting an archipelago 

In remote, low-ARPU areas with low-population density, carriers have little incentive to deploy fiber as complex deployment conditions, long ROI periods, and huge costs don’t create convincing business cases. 

Such is the case in the Philippines. With just over 73 percent of its 108 million people connected, the archipelago’s natural geography has created a barrier to connectivity for nearly a third of its population. “The Philippines is made up of 7,300 islands, so rolling out fiber on every island is going to be very difficult,” admits Ron Ng, Globe Telecom’s Head of Integrated Masterplanning. 

For unconnected Filipinos, the lack of broadband access has historically affected three particular areas the most: education, information and communications, and finance. The people hit hardest tend to be women, the uneducated, the elderly, and the disabled. For many, access to self-learning and online courses, real-time news that can lead to better-informed life decisions, and mobile financial services are impossible – 65 percent of Filipinos remain unbanked. And despite high smartphone penetration, a sizable number have no access to mobile money services that are so valuable to low-income households.

With WTTx the Philippine operator Globe Telecom is starting to make a dent in the digital divide. Globe began rolling out WTTx in 2014 to power its AtHome wireless broadband service. With around 65 percent – or 1.2 million of Globe’s 1.8 million subscriber base – subscribed to WTTx, the telco has developed a very strong foundation in wireless fiber while meeting a clear market need, “We’re well on the WTTx journey,” says Ng. The telco’s early start has also paved the way towards 5G, allowing Globe to sharpen its competitive edge early, “In June, we were the first operator in South East Asia to launch 5G FWA,” he says. “We’re offering 50 Mbps and 100 Mbps plans.” 

Due to higher productivity and efficiency coupled with the new business opportunities that faster mobile Internet enables, 5G rollout is expected to boost GDP wherever it’s deployed.  

Alongside Huawei CPEs, Huawei’s Massive MIMO antennae system underpins Globe’s WTTx solution and is forging the path to 5G. At the Global Mobile Broadband Forum in October 2019, Huawei launched its third-generation Massive MIMO solution, delivering improved power-efficiency and greater coverage in the mid-band frequencies that many countries have reserved for 5G services. 

Ng mentions four points of focus for Globe’s 5G FWA strategy, “We’re prioritizing reaching hard-to-acquire areas, faster deployment, replacing fiber, and enabling smart homes.” To achieve this, the company is adopting an integrated planning approach that combines DSL, fiber, WTTx, and 5G to deliver fast, low-cost home broadband, with Huawei’s 5G CPEs serving as air fiber modems. 

Although there’s more work to be done, expanding connectivity and nascent 5G is creating a more equal playing field for digital empowerment, access, and productivity across the Philippines on the back of already strong economic performance – 6.7 percent GDP growth in 2017 and 6.2 percent in 2018. 

Reaching the rural majority

Much like the Philippines, Sri Lanka is seeing growth in fixed wireless broadband users outstripping fixed wireline services, a trend that’s common in emerging economies where prepaid packages are dominant. Starting from a broadband penetration rate of just 2 percent in 2013 and with 80 percent of Sri Lankan million people spread out over low-density rural communities, WTTx has emerged as the engine that has breathed digital life into the isolated island nation in a few short years – a nation where the digital gap is particularly felt based on urban and rural lines, economic class, and gender. For example, a 2018 UNICEF report on 11-18 year old children revealed that 67.6 percent of boys had Internet access compared to just 33.1 percent of girls. 

With five operators making for a competitive mobile broadband landscape and fixed broadband unviable in terms of both cost and ROI, the operator Dialog identified Huawei’s 4G FWA technology as the best way to leverage its existing networks, spectrum resources, and sites to provide broadband for homes and businesses. 

After beginning deployment in 2013, Dialog increased home broadband penetration to 26 percent, lifting 800,000 people out of the digital vacuum and enabling advances in many areas, including remote education, medical diagnosis, women’s education, and climate change action. It also powers Dialog’s mobile money service eZ Cash, helping expand financial inclusion, an essential tool for alleviating poverty.    

Better business with FWA

With an Internet access penetration rate of just over 77 percent, Trinidad and Tobago has seen three operators competing fiercely for fixed broadband subscribers. The Trinidad and Tobago National ICT Plan ICT Blueprint 2018 – 2022 notes that, “The islands of Trinidad and Tobago are at different stages of ICT readiness, particularly with respect to infrastructure, connectivity, skills, and access. Given the disparity in readiness, Tobago has experienced slower uptake of ICT, particularly among individuals and businesses. Therefore, ICT initiatives are to be tailored to meet the specific needs of Tobago.”

Fixed wireline technology isn’t up to the job, however. In the operator landscape, TSTT saw its revenues decline by 21.4 percent in one year and lost 33 percent of its subscribers in 18 months due to the poor user experience and high OPEX caused by copper cables. As in Sri Lanka and the Philippines, WTTx has considerable advantages in this type of scenario where fixed broadband isn’t sustainable. 

In 2018, TSTT launched its “Zero Copper” plan with the aim of expanding coverage to 95 percent of the population with a mix of wireline and wireless fiber. Basic coverage was achieved with Huawei’s FWA solution, and fiber was deployed in dense urban areas. 

Underpinned by Huawei’s Massive MIMO and CPEs, TSTT is now able to offer high-quality bundles of voice, Internet, and OTT video services at 30 percent less than the average market price, making online services available to more lower-income households

With high-gain outdoor CPEs achieving a coverage radius of 30 km, FWA is demonstrably the best solution in remote, low-density areas where it’s not profitable to lay fiber to connect the unconnected. By eliminating civil works costs, FWA also slashes average per connection costs so that networks with equivalent TCO can serve more families than FTTH. 

More than connectivity

But connectivity isn’t enough. There must also be a commitment to teaching digital skills to ensure that the newly connected are equipped with the skills to benefit from connectivity, including an understanding of why it’s beneficial plus the risks. 

GSMA reports that 43 percent of people globally are still not connected even though they have network coverage. In Kenya, less than 50 percent of people use the Internet, even though 3G and 4G networks cover 80 percent of the population. The reason is that many people aren’t aware of the value of being online. 

Equally, everyone – especially children – must be taught about responsible Internet use. In the 2018 UNICEF report on Sri Lanka cited earlier, 53.6 percent of children who used the Internet responded that they were “self-taught”, and just 16.5 percent were taught by their parents. This results in a lack of understanding about both privacy and safety. Of the surveyed Internet users, 15.1 percent reported that they had divulged true information online, like name, age, and telephone number. More alarmingly, 46.3 percent had communicated with strangers online, with 27.9 percent of those having met a stranger in person.  

As well as digital access, Huawei and its partners are committed to expanding digital literacy, with the DigiTruck project in Kenya an example of how digital skills can be brought to remote areas, with a converted shipping container mounted on a truck serving as a mobile classroom. 

Underpinned by an availability of digital skills’ training, FWA can ensure that fewer people are left behind when it comes to the socioeconomic benefits of digital technology, while ensuring strong business outcomes for operators. The right solutions can also lay the foundation for 5G and the wealth of socioeconomic benefits that gigabit speeds can create, so that Broadband for All means a better life for all.